Date Night (Twentieth Century Fox) may be the funniest movie of the year so far—one-quarter of the way through a year that’s been remarkably weak for comedies. This is a movie that I’m inclined to grade on a serious curve, because while it never achieves full-on laugh-riot momentum, it gets one crucial element of comic filmmaking right in a way that few recent comedies have. It’s cast, down to the smallest role, with genuinely funny performers, people who understand how to time a joke, deliver a setup, underplay a deadpan glance. Though the material—an often-formulaic script by Josh Klausner, directed by Shawn Levy of the Night at the Museum franchise—isn’t always worthy of their talents, Tina Fey and Steve Carell (and many of their co-stars, including Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, and Mila Kunis) manage intermittently to elevate Date Night to giddy heights.
The film’s setup is belabored, but the slow pace of the early scenes gives Carell’s and Fey’s characters a chance to emerge. Phil and Claire Foster are a middle-aged New Jersey couple, he a tax accountant, she a real estate agent, who’ve settled into a domestic rut. From the moment their two small children dive-bomb their bed at 5 a.m, they’re packing lunches, settling quarrels, cooking, cleaning, and working, till they’re so exhausted they can barely drag themselves out for their once-a-week “date night” at the local Teaneck Tavern. Familiar as these early scenes feel—really, couldn’t directors just save time by inserting a title card that reads “Imagine deadening suburbia here”?—the scene at the tavern establishes an important detail: Phil and Claire enjoy one another’s company.
Looking around at the nearby tables, they play a game in which they imagine their fellow patrons’ bizarre conversations, and their ad-libbed non sequiturs crack them (and us) up. Knowing the Fosters are capable of having fun—they’re bored with their routine, not with each other—sends us into the film’s second act with a rush of goodwill.
When they’re snubbed by the maitre d’ at an achingly trendy seafood joint called Claw, Phil and Claire impulsively claim the reservation of a no-show couple named the Tripplehorns. Soon two menacing-looking dudes (Common and Jimmi Simpson) show up to ask them to leave, and, assuming the jig is up, Phil and Claire shame-facedly allow themselves to be hustled from the restaurant. Outside, the thugs hustle them into a car at gunpoint, shouting something about the “flash drive.” As it turns out, the Tripplehorns are scam artists involved in a dangerous (and overplotted) intrigue involving blackmail, a mob boss, and a crooked district attorney.
Perhaps in the attempt to add some action-movie mojo to its middle third, Date Night works far too hard to convince us that this “where’s the flash drive!” business either makes sense or matters. All we need to know is that the bad guys want something they’re falsely convinced Claire and Phil have—the classic wrong-man setup, straight out of North by Northwest. All the shootouts and car chases just take time away from what we really want to see, which is how these two normal people react to the spiraling insanity of their situation. And, of course, how they interact with the characters they meet during the course of the night. James Franco and Mila Kunis get only one scene as the real (or are they?) Tripplehorns, but they turn it into a hilarious and weirdly touching portrait of dysfunctional con artists in love. Mark Wahlberg—who I’ve always maintained is better cast as a comedian than as an action hero—plays a perpetually shirtless black-ops expert who can’t stop exchanging charged innuendo with Claire. The movie’s comic high point is a pole dance that Phil and Claire find themselves forced to perform for the corrupt DA (William Fichtner, killing it in a tiny role), who’s so deeply perverted he finds their hastily improvised “sexy robot” routine arousing.
It’s probably evident from the foregoing that watching Date Night is more like dinner at the Teaneck Tavern than an edgy evening at Claw. Its pleasures are comfortable and small-scale: things like Fichtner’s delicious cameo as the horny DA or Tina Fey’s trick for following up a punchline with a mumbled analysis of why it fell flat. But in a moment when comedy’s principal gambit seems to be excess—more profanity, more outrageous grossout gags, more stunt casting—this movie’s sense of pacing and proportion is a welcome departure.
The one place Date Night should have permitted itself more excess would have been allowing its actors more flights of fancy. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie come during the outtakes under the final credits, in which Fey and Carell ad-lib variations on their lines, each funnier than the last (and most funnier than the version that made it into the final cut). Comics this talented provide an exception to the axiom that a movie is only as good as its script: With the right kind of on-set improvisation, it can be made better. By boxing its lead couple into a conventional action story line, Date Night throws away its chance to be the funniest movie of the year without any asterisk.